Scientists have warned that massive space storms could be on the way as the Sun wakes from a ‘deep slumber’.
The Sun follows an 11-year cycle of high and low periods of solar activity. It is now leaving a notably quiet phase and scientists expect to see a sharp increase in the number of solar flares as well as unprecedented levels of magnetic energy.
This could have catastrophic consequences for Earth.
The rings of fire, which have the power of 100 hydrogen bombs, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.
Experts met in Washington DC last week to discuss how to protect Earth from the ferocious flares, which are expected sometime around 2013.
The 'space conference' was attended by scientists, government policy-makers and researchers.
Richard Fisher, head of Nasa's Heliophysics Division, explained: 'The Sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity.
‘At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms.’
Nasa is using dozens of satellites – including the Solar Dynamics Observatory – to study the threat.
The problem was investigated in depth two years ago by the National Academy of Sciences, in a report which outlined the social and economic impacts of severe space weather events.
It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life.
Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity.
But much of the damage could be minimised if there was foreknowledge that the storm was approaching.
Putting satellites in 'safe mode' and disconnecting transformers could protect them from damaging electrical surges.
Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting - a job that has been assigned to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)
'Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we're making rapid progress,' says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Bogdan sees the collaboration between Nasa and NOAA as key.
'NASA's fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what's happening on the Sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.'
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